free hugs.

14 Jun

Delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY
June 12, 2011

I know a girl, whose mother tells this story. That from the time the mother was pregnant and had the first butterfly feelings of the baby’s movement in her belly, the girl was constantly tossing and turning, never still, even in sleep. The mother prepared herself for a hyperactive kid.

When the girl was born, the mother was not prepared for the girl’s need to constantly be held. Tossing and turning, squirming away, the baby girl would fuss every time she was not in direct contact with another person. As the girl grew, she could climb into laps, hug, touch, hold hands, and climb into bed with her parents – still tossing and turning, and at the same time needing to be touched.

The mother was very confused for a while, she says. But then one day, the mother was watching the little girl walk down the street with her grandfather. They were holding hands, swinging them back and forth. The grandfather would occasionally swoop the girl up onto his shoulders. Up and down, arms swinging. Constantly in motion, constantly touching. Later, the mother watched as the girl and her grandfather watched TV together, with the girl on her grandfathers lap, tossing and turning, and the grandfather patiently adjusting position.

It occurred to the mother that these were two peas in a pod. Cut from the same cloth, with high needs to be touched – even while they are in motion. And, the mother shares, this gave her insight into her little girl – insight that gave her more patience at the constant grabbing, fussing, tossing, turning needing to snuggle.

Our sense of touch is one of the most interesting of our senses. It is found in our skin, but in other organs of our bodies as well. Our sense of touch tells us if something is hot, or cold, or if it is soft or if it hurts, and so, so much more. It is one of the first senses developed in-utero – with a fetus being able to sense and respond to light touch by 9 weeks.i

Touch is the “main way in which infants learn about their environment and bond with other people. This sense never turns off or takes a break, and it continues to work long after the other senses fail in old age.”ii

A lack of affectionate, loving, gentle touches has an negative effect on our neurological development, on our sense of self and our sense of how lovable we are, on the relationships we have, on our general physical health, and so much more. Violent, hostile or abusive touches affect these aspects of our development and our lives as well. How we are touched as infants, children and as adults, has a strong connection with our mental health and sense of well-being.

“Our Whole Lives,” or OWL, is the comprehensive sexuality curriculum developed by Unitarian Universalists and United Church of Christ experts. In OWL training, facilitators are taught that the term “Touch Hunger” is used to explain our human need to be touched by another human being, and what happens if we don’t get our touch hunger needs met by our family: we look for it elsewhere.

I know a young woman who was told to stop holding her mothers hand – told that she was too old for such a thing. Without her touch hunger being satiated, the young woman describes how she felt rejected, as though there were something wrong with her. As is often the case, she began to seek touches from others and made some not-so-great decisions along the way.

Beyond infancy, childhood, and adolescence, we continue to have a hunger for affectionate touches in our adulthood. “Research by US psychologists Karen Grewen and Karen Light has shown that when people hug the brain releases the chemical oxytocin. This encourages social bonding, increases our willingness to trust and decreases fear.”iii

Particularly in this day of instant messaging, email, twitter, texting and other electronic ways of connecting, technology is redefining our understanding of intimacy. In her new book Alone Together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other, psychologist and researcher Sherry Turkle points out that “after an evening of avatar-to-avatar talk in a networked game, we feel, at one moment, in possession of a full social life, and, in the next, curiously isolated.”iv We may be getting our social and psychological needs met through technology, but our touch hunger cannot be satiated by our computers.

For better or for worse, Turkle points out, that is changing as well. The first section of her book is devoted to an explanation of how programmers and scientists have been creating robots that respond to our need for touch. Similar to therapy dogs, which are trained to provide affection and comfort for people in the hospital and other locations, these new robots have the ability to respond when pet, stroked, or even spoken to. Though they can not care for us, these robots can provide important care to people in need of physical contact, and are easier to take care of for these institutions that therapy dogs are.

I don’t know about you, but I personally prefer my touch hunger be met by my loved ones rather than a robot. I was a baby wearing-mama when my children were younger, and continue to try to give them lots of hugs and kisses. It is not uncommon for our whole family to be snuggled together on the couch as we watch TV – sometimes complete with cats and the new puppy. It can get pretty crowded. This is my way of getting this touch hunger met.

I am aware that I am lucky in this regard. I have loved ones nearby who can meet this primal need of mine, and whose needs I can meet in return. This is not the case for everyone. It was not the case for someone who goes by the name “Juan Mann.”

Juan tells the story of becoming depressed as he was more and more isolated in the city he lived in. Family had moved away, friends had moved away. He was alone. “Human contact was limited to a cashier’s hand brushing mine when returning my change in stores.”v He was suffering.

Then, one day, while he was “deep in thought a young lady strolled out of the crowd and right up to [him], smiled into [his] eyes and wrapped her arms around [him]. In that moment” he says, “I discovered something I’d known all along, but hadn’t realized or had simply forgotten in my sadness. I’d found the one thing I’d been truly missing, in all that time I’d spent alone. Hugs are amazing. Everyone involved in a hug benefits, everyone feels better for it!”

This was the start of something called the Free Hugs Campaign, which is an “an international kindness initiative, that has spread to over 80 countries around the world, founded on the simple principle of offering a stranger a hug.” International Free Hugs Day is celebrated on the first Saturday after June 30th every year. This year, that falls on July 2.

Juan started this campaign to help himself, and in the process has helped many others around the world. He says that The Free Hugs Campaign “is about many things, like making someone’s day a little brighter, meeting people and showing the world that strangers aren’t so bad after all. It’s also about bringing people together and sharing a happy moment before heading back out into the world feeling a little lighter….[it’s] about people being there for each other.”

Juan points out that “A hug is a universally recognized gesture that demonstrates affection, compassion and support between people. All over the world, people hug at different times and for different reasons. To celebrate, to mourn, to greet and say goodbye….Some cultures enjoy hugs everywhere and from anyone they’re available from. Other cultures treat hugs as sacred things that should only be shared with someone you know and love. Some people don’t know how important a hug is until they no longer share them.”

American author and family therapist expert Virginia Satir would agree – she once said that “The recommended daily requirement for hugs is: four per day for survival, eight per day for maintenance, and twelve per day for growth.”

Juan, and now many many others around the world, simply stand on a busy street with signs that say Free Hugs. And they wait for someone who needs a hug to approach. Or, perhaps, for someone who needs to give a hug. Along the way, he has developed a code of conduct for free hugs, including, but not limited to:

  • Don’t Hug somebody unless they offer to hug you – An unwanted, uninvited hug can be threatening and unwelcome. The purpose of the Free Hugs Campaign is to offer Free Hugs to those who want and need them, not to force yourself on those who might be scared, intimidated or uninterested.
  • Smile at everyone – They may just smile or maybe double back for a quick hug.
  • When hugging someone, be mindful of their physical condition – Don’t pick up a someone frail and twirl them around like you would a dancing partner! Unless they run and leap into your arms, a nice old fashioned hug is just fine.
  • When the person you are hugging stops hugging you, let go – Go with the flow and let the person you’re hugging guide the hug.
  • Some people don’t want a hug – But they might settle for a handshake.

Juan and others are very excited about this campaign, as it meets a primal human need to be touched. But the benefits go much further. Hugs can make you feel less lonely, can help you feel when you are feeling numb, can boost your self esteem, improve your health, help you relax, are a great way to celebrate, and they feel great.

Let’s take a few moments now to see the Free Hugs Campaign in action. Though there are many free hugs videos, this one from Italy is one of my favorites. Watch the huggers, but also watch the expressions and body language of the people receiving the hugs.

You know what is coming next, right? Some of you are probably excited, others nervous. We are so, so isolated, and many of us have no one with whom we can share a good hug – a hug that lets us know that we are seen, that we matter. Churches, I believe, are places where we explore what it means to be alive, where we can be reminded that we, as individuals, do matter. Churches are places where we are told that we loveable, and that we are loved. And today, this church will demonstrate it. So here is how it is going to work. We are going to give our own hugs right now.

If my volunteer huggers could please come forward. These folks have graciously agreed to be our huggers today. We are going to play the music from the video we just saw, and anyone who wants to is invited to come forward for a hug, or 2 or 3 or as many as you want.

Now, some of you may need a physical touch, but a hug might be too much. I would like all huggers to approach each other with hands out, palms up. If you prefer to just hold hands for a moment, you can approach a hugger with palms down to better hold their hands with.

If you would like to give or receive a hug, but cannot get up due to mobility or other issues, raise your hand and we will make sure you can participate.

As the hugging and hand holding is going on, we will be listening to the song that was the music for the video we saw. Feel free to join in singing the Hallelujahs.

After all hugs have been given and received, we will have a chance to process our experience together.

Hugs, hugs, and more hugs!

How was that for you? Did you get up and get a hug, or hold hands with someone? Were you a hugger, or a huggee? Were you nervous? What feelings did it raise? Did you remain in your seat? What was this experience like for you?

Thank you for your participating, and your sharing. “The recommended daily requirement for hugs is: four per day for survival, eight per day for maintenance, and twelve per day for growth.” So many of us don’t come anywhere near even the survival requirement. I hope today some of you might have moved into the growth category.

We live in a world of fear: fear of sexual harassment, abuse or inappropriate touches. Our fear can cause us to not even look at each other, to further isolate ourselves. This isolation can cause us to dehumanize others, as we dehumanize ourselves as well. As human beings we hunger for each others touch.

May this beloved community be a place that meets our spiritual, emotional, and intellectual needs. And may it be a place where we know that we can offer, and receive a hug or a handshake, so that our touch hunger needs are met with love, respect, and care.


i “Prenatal Form and Function – The Making of an Earth Suit” at

ii Leonard, Crystal. “The Sense of Touch and How It Affects Development” at

iii Quoted from and corroborated at

iv Turkle, Sherry. Along Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, p. 11

v Details and stories about the Free Hugs campaign come from “The Illustrated Guide to Free Hugs,” available online at

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: